From the archives: W&L to go coed in ‘85

The original Phi article detailing the decision was published in a special Extra edition on July 16, 1984

Mike Allen and Bruce Potter

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Washington and Lee University will begin admitting women in the fall of 1985, the Board of Trustees decided July 14 after a two- day special meeting.

The decision ends 235 years of all-male tradition at Washington and Lee and leaves only a handful of all-male, non-military liberal arts colleges.

The resolution, passed 17-7 by the trustees after what was de- scribed as a “civil” yet “vigorous” debate, reads as follows:

“Resolved, that Washington and Lee University shall admit quali-ed students, regardless of gender, to all of its degree programs com- mencing in the Fall of 1985.”

The decision was announced at a 12:45 p.m. press conference in the Commerce School. Nearly 50 media representatives attended the conference. About 100 students and faculty members watched the press conference on television monitors in Reid Hall.

Reading from a statement prepared by the board, which had voted on coeducation at 11:50 a.m., Rector James M. Ballengee said, “We are convinced that a stronger Washington and Lee and a stronger society will be the happy result of the decision we have made.”

As many as 100 women will be admitted in the fall of 1965, said University President John D. Wilson, adding that the board had hoped the school would have as many as 500 women students within 10 years.

Wilson spoke of the “integrity, honor and character here,” as well as “our superior teaching and learning and academic program.”

“We believe that these values that are so important to Washington and Lee can and will be enjoyed by men and women equally, and that they will help to contribute to making these as much a part of the future as they have been of the past,” he continued.

Wilson also said at the press conference that he had voted in favorof the motion. Although he said he didn’t speci cally make a recommendation to the board, he was the rst member to speak on the issueSaturday morning.

“I suppose that could be construed as a recommendation,” Wilson said.

Another member of the board, whom Ballengee declined to identify, made the motion to adopt the resolution.

Executive Committee President Cole Dawson and former EC President Robert C. Jenevein represented the student body in the trustees’ closed sessions. Jenevein traveled to the meeting from Dallas at his own expense.

Looking worn but enthusiastic, Dawson talked with reporters following the trustees’ press conference. “It’s going to take an effort of the whole student body to implement coeducation in a positive way,” he said.

“It was really exciting when it happened. I still cannot believe the course of history has changed right here at Washington and Lee.”

Dawson said he was in favor of coeducation. “I didn’t come out and directly tell them that, exactly,” he said. “I told them at the end that my feelings were toward coeducation.”

“I don’t think the market is there for an all-male school,” he add- ed. “This school’s not marketable as an all-male institution.”

Charles D. Hurt Jr. of Atlanta, president of the Alumni Associa- tion, and former Alumni Association President Peter A. Agelasto III, represented the alumni at the meeting.

Among reports received by the board this weekend was an analy- sis of an alumni survey conducted this spring by a Richmond re-search rm. Of the 6,700 alumni who responded to that survey, 58.5 percent said they opposed coeducation, 28.9 percent said they favored it, and 10.6 percent said they had no opinion.

Although Hurt said he did not make a speci c recommendationthat the board defeat coeducation, he did say the board was aware of the alumni’s feelings because “we have had a continuous communi- cation with the board as a whole as well as individually.”

Alumni will support the decision, Hurt added. “I think the decision was the right decision, and I think the alumni will accept the decision,” he said. In its statement the board noted that “within the Board’s membership itself opinion was divided, and the vote on the resolution’s adoption, while strongly in favor, was not unanimous. However, now that the decision is made, the Trustees are united in pledging their full commitment to the successful implementation of the University’s new course.”

At the press conference, Ballengee said, “We determined in advance that a decision of this magnitude should not be made by what one would call a slim majority or a narrow majority.” He added that the number of votes in favor of coeducation, 17, exceeded the number of votes the board had decided to require, but he declined to identify that number.

Two other trustees, A. Christian Compton of Richmond and Edgar F. Shannon Jr. of Chariottesville, attended the press conference.Shannon was president of the University of Virginia when it first began accepting female students.

Compton said he voted against coeducation “because I feel that we have put in place at this university a fine-tuned educational machine which is providing a high-quality education in a single-sex atmosphere,” and has produced “a body of outstanding alumni who have succeeded eminently in all walks of life.”

However, Compton said, “Those of us who love and support Washington and Lee will work just as hard to make coeducation another positive factor as far as W&L is concerned.”

“There is no appeal,” added Compton, a justice of the Virginia Supreme Court. Shannon noted that the board studied many nancialprojections before making the decision.

Ballengee described the discussion preceeding the vote as “entirely civil, as Washington and Lee gentlemen should be, one to another …. There were people with differing points of view.

“All of the issues that you could possibly imagine were discussed. It was a free, full and frank discussion. I never heard anyone raise his voice. On the whole, it was polite.”

Asked his feelings now that the debate nally had ended, Wilsonsaid, “I feel exhausted, if you want to be absolutely candid about it. It’s been a long and arduous undertaking, (but) frankly, a rewarding time.”

“I’m just looking forward to having it all be over,” he had said in an interview earlier this week.

“A decision of this magnitude and complexity involves us all in the re-examination of this university and its character. There is a spirit alive on the campus, a spirit of humaneness.

“I feel very good about the decision. I think it was the right decision to be made,” added Wilson, who, along with Ballengee, wore a Washington and Lee tie to the press conference.

Relaxing at Lee House after the press conference, Wilson expressed hope that Washington and Lee now could begin to plan for the future in other areas.

Wilson said at the press conference that the trustees authorized creation of a committee on coeducation, consisting of students, faculty and administrators, “to help guide us in every step of the way.” Female law students and womer faculty members will aid the committee, Wilson added.

Among planned improvements to the university’s physical plant are a $4 million to $5 million dormitory, which has been in the works for some time, and about $150,000 worth of renovations to the gymnasium areas to provide separate locker room and shower facilities for female students.

“I trust that you’re supportive of that,” Wilson added, with a laugh.

Some of the 17 fraternities “could go under” because of the decreased male population, Wilson said, although he noted that some of those are already financially unstable.

“We do have a commitment to our fraternities,” Wilson added. “Even now, they’re undergoing some self-reformation, and we’re going to encourage that in every way possible.”

The possibility of sororities on campus will be discussed when the women arrive in 1985, Wilson said.

Twenty-two of-the board’s 25 members are alumni.

Thomas K. Wolfe, who was elected to the board in December but has not been sworn in, did not attend the meeting because of a “weekend deadline on the serialized novel he is writing for Rolling Stone.”

T. Hal Clarke voted by telephone from Scotland, where he was traveling, and J. Alvin Philpott voted by telephone from North Caro- lina.

A number of press accounts of the event took note of the days on which the trustees’ discussions were held. “Yes, we know that yesterday was Friday the 13th and that today is Bastille Day,” News Office Director Jeffrey G. Hanna said in a press kit distributed at the news conference.

Wilson said in an interview before the meeting that he hadn’t expected “the degree of broader public interest in the decision here.”

“The hoopla continues around us,” he said. “That all, frankly, surprises me, but it does indicate that Washington and Lee has a special place in Virginia and in the South, especially. People are interested in what happens here.”

Wilson, who assumed the presidency early in 1983, received criticism from several quarters while the debate and study on coeducation were in progress. Prior to the trustees’ meeting, he was asked how a decision one way or the other would affect him as a person and as an administrator.

“…There are some who do believe that I came with a settled mind on the question and are in some measure alienated from me personally,” he said.

“If the decision is to admit young women to degree candidacy, how soon will the students and alumni members who opposed it reconcile themselves to it? Will they at all, and if so, when? Mixed up in that, somehow, is how soon, if at all, they will be willing to give support to my administration.”

The issue of coeducation has been debated frequently at W&L, beginning in 1888.

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